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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star, Who Wrote You? ’Twas Not Mozart.

By Phil Plait

“I never made a mistake in my life. I thought I did once, but I was wrong.” –Charles Schulz

Despite being a beloved internet personality, I have my flaws. Sometimes—rarely, of course—I make mistakes. I know. You’re shocked. Take a moment to recover, if you need one.

But it happens. If it’s small and doesn’t impact the writing in an article I fix it and move on, or (because TPTB at Slate are quite strict about such things) I issue a correction in the article itself. Sometimes the mistake is extensive, or worth diving into more fully, or as happens often is illustrative of an interesting issue, and in those instances I’ll write a separate follow-up article.

Sometimes it’s more of the “Oh. Huh!” variety. Such is the case here.

In my first book, Bad Astronomy, I offhandedly mention that the tune for “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” was written by one Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Perhaps you’ve heard of him, and perhaps you’ve heard this claim as well.

However, it appears I and everyone else who repeats this little factoid are wrong. In an article at Woot, professional smart person Ken Jennings corrects this common misconception. It turns out the tune did not come from Mozart, but instead is actually a French folk song that dates from before him. I urge you to read Jennings’ article for details, as he mentions how Mozart got saddled with the credit.

Jennings also calls me out specifically for making the claim, especially and ironically in a book I wrote trying to correct misconceptions. Mea culpa. I remember writing that claim back in 2000 when I was drafting the book, and I even vaguely remember both thinking to myself that I should check its veracity, and actually doing so. However, I must have found some article that confirmed my own bias about the song’s authorship and went with it. Unfortunately, no one else in the editorial process caught it either, most likely simply assuming the old claim was correct.

Ah well. If you buy my book and are saddled with existential conflict due to this error, I suggest you take a pen, cross out the offending portion, and smile knowingly as you have gained more knowledge, a noble goal.

And if you’re the kind of person who delights when someone in my position makes an error, I  suggest you buy somewhere between 10 to 20 copies of the book and distribute them among your friends, so that you may all gather and bask in my factual wrong turn.

Of course, none of this affects another book, Astronomically Correct Twinkle Twinkle, written by my friends Henry Reich and Zach Weinersmith, which is quite delightful. Ironically, I suppose, I fact checked their book, and came up empty of errors. But then, they’re both smarter than I am, and combined they possess fierce intellect.

Now, for penance, I’m going to go listen to “The 1812 Overture,” which I hear was written by Francis Bacon.

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